Sunday, December 18, 2011

Summer Pleasures on Sabbatical

Great blue heron being great, Montlake Fill

Here's how my birderbrain works: it's the end of December which means it's practically January which means it's practically spring which means spring migration is nigh which means I'll be spending 12 hours a day tromping through fields and grasses and forests and deserts and mosquitoes, over rattlesnakes and brambles, etc., laden with camera, lenses, binocs, water, field guide, snack bars, etc. And despite these physical impositions, I'll be blissed out and high. (Am I the only birder in the world to embark upon a fitness program to enhance my staying power in the field?)

Female common yellowthroat near nest, Montlake Fill

In other words, I am already lusting and salivating at the prospect of weekends spent birding and shooting. Realistically, it's a few months away, but it seems practically touchable right now.

Anyways, here is a small glimpse of spring/summer pleasures to tide us through the next few months of damp greyness.

Savannah sparrow rockin' out, Montlake Fill

Bewick's wren rockin' out, UW campus

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saurus, I Say

In case you ever wondered about the reptilian-avian connection, I submit the following:

If you've never been on the receiving end of a bird's really pissed off and/or threatened hiiiiissssssssssssss, trust me: they are reptiles with wings. (I've lived with two cockatiels for a decade, so I know of what I speak.)

If you've never witnessed a heron crouched, neck contracted and spring-loaded to strike, trust me: they are reptiles with beaks. (Their success rate is about triple that of an MVP's batting average, btw.)

Saurus, I say. (Sauros is Ancient Greek for lizard--hence, dinosaur.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

RIP, Stripey

The Time finally came yesterday--the time to put Stripey to sleep. She had lived for ten months with a medical condition that usually kills cockatiels in 24-48 hours.

But that's how Stripey was: indomitable, bombastic, contrarian.  Not only did she run the sexual pursuit and mounting of Lemon as if she were the alpha male, but she built nests, laid eggs, and sat on them for 3 weeks at a time. (Periods that were a merciful respite from the tyranny of Stripey, for both Lemon and myself.)

Stripey's flight and walk were impertinent, demanding, devil-may-care. I could tell the difference between her arrival and Lemon's on my bed or on the back of my chair: Lemon is dainty and gentle; Stripey was full of bombast and bluster. She would have made a great solider of fortune.

Before placing her in the vet's gas chamber I involuntarily whispered, "Stripey, you made me a better person." Who would think that 98 grams of blood, muscle, beak and feather could do that? Caring for Stripey and Lemon enlivened a selflessness and unconditional love in me that I hadn't thought possible for an unmarried, child- and spouse-unencumbered person like myself.  I finally got the smallest inkling of what parenthood can provoke in a person.

I really thought Stripey might just wake up after being put to sleep and proclaim, "Hi, I'm back!" That's how crazy and defiant and untamable she was.

But no, she is nestled sweetly--and uncharacteristically--in a box, placed there gently by the vet. She is lying in state in the living room today.

I'm okay with this but know that I will be an inconsolable mess when Lemon dies. She is vastly sweeter and more vulnerable than Stripey and in turn provokes great tenderness and protectiveness in me.

Here is Striper in classic "What the FUCK you looking at?!" mode:

And here I am saying goodbye at the vet (shot by the singularly sensitive and sympathetic vet assistant to whom I'll always be grateful. She made what could have been an alienating and cold experience as graceful and sweet as was possible.)

Good bye, Striperific!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bird Body Language

No, this Killdeer is not waving hello or doing bird yoga--it is performing a species-saving technique called "the broken wing display". When a perceived predator gets close to a parent's nest or young, it scurries off, leading the predator away from a potential meal. By feigning injury, the parent deceives the predator into thinking it is in fact the easy target, thus saving its young from attack. Sometimes both parents dart away from their booty in different directions, which can truly befuddle a predator (or a photographer).

With a baby this cute, who wouldn't risk his or her own life?

Sunday, July 10, 2011


This Osprey (#1) on Lake Union careened around its desired mate (#2) for an hour, making pathetic keening noises all the while. As #1 approached #2, which was sitting on the light fixture to the right, #2 flew away. #1 didn't seem to notice the departure and approached the now empty light fixture with more keening and a courtship offering: a decapitated, bloody silver fish.
A more productive and better example of food-offering: an insistent black-capped chickadee fledgling being fed an insect by its parent on Capitol Hill.

And now...viscera! Entrails! Blood, guts, beak and gore. A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk with a just-killed meal. As I biked past a stand of cottonwoods I heard the hysterical alarm calls and protestations of robins, starlings, chickadees and crows. I knew this boded well for me and my camera (but not for the unfortunate victim and family) so I headed toward the ruckus. I'm pretty sure the kill is a robin nestling due to the dark grey feathers, size and length of legs.

And goodbye! The hawk was escorted off the premises by all species, including an Anna's Hummingbird.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Kitchen Table Birding

I didn't have to go further afield than my own kitchen to witness this absurd yet amusing avian trick: the old I'm-so-addicted-to-pistachios-that-I-will-endanger-my-life-to-eat-one gambit.
Stripey looks on smirking.

Poor Lemon was not able to get herself out without my help--but even as she was stuck, she continued to eat nuts.

This is not a stunt that I will encourage. Such is motherhood.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Happy International Bluebird Day!

Okay, so there isn't really such a day, but there should be because bluebirds make everyone happy.

This mountain bluebird pair along Umptanum Road was nesting in a fence post in a hole about a foot from the ground; on the opposite side of the post about four feet up, a house wren abode was in full swing. All four parents were so intent upon feeding their young that they allowed me to sit with my camera about 10-12' away for a good half-hour.

 To the left is a male western bluebird, distinguished by ruddy coloration on its scapulars, bringing prime insect dinner to its young. Below is the inside of one of the scores of nestboxes built by the Yakima Audubon Society along the Umptanum Road to the west of Yakima. 
 If you aren't smiling by now, please seek medical advice immediately.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Nature's hieroglyphics

Not sure exactly who's handiwork/beakwork/mouthwork this is, but certainly looks like hieroglyphics on a totem pole. I think the hole is courtesy of a tree swallow, or perhaps a smallish woodpecker. The curvy lines, I assume, are the trails of some sort of insect boring its way through the wood, gaining sustenance along the way.

Seen along the Yakima River at Elk Meadows Park.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Warning: Cuteness Overload

If you don't like avian cuteness, this is not the blog--or the season--for you. Today's cuteness is courtesy of a local Killdeer family which resides in the gravel parking lot at the Montlake Fill (AKA the Urban Horticulture Center or the Union Bay Wildlife Area).

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Killer Crow

Preface: These shots are crappy and not up to BirdWordGirl standard; but they illustrate something not often seen, so it is worth sharing them, despite the damage they might wreak upon my PhotoEgo.

Yesterday morning at low tide along the Duwamish River. Lots of juvenile starlings around; this one got very unlucky. For two agonizing minutes, the crow plucked and pecked at the starling, who squealed and cried on its back, pedaling its legs in protest. Meanwhile all nearby starlings and robins went beserk with alarm calls.

The crow spent nearly as much energy defending its killing process from its voracious corvid colleagues as it did pecking at the starling.

Frankly, it was a relief when the body was finally lifeless and feathers began flying as the crow tucked in. After a few seconds, the crow flew off with the body, assailed by its colleagues.

(Yes, I did briefly consider stopping the killing but the hard facts intervened: starlings are a non-native species which are numerous and at times quite harmful to native species.  If it had been a Flicker, my favorite bird, I would have gone ballistic on that crow's ass.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sunbathing is for the birds

We had feeble, fleeting moments of sun on Sunday and this Flicker took advantage of the warmth to stretch, yawn and take a sun bath. She extended her wings, lowered her body to the sun-warmed branch, closed her eyes and lolled her head to the side. Kind of like us.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Owl prowl: success!

Thanks to the expert ear and owl calls of Luis, my birding guide in San Pancho, we found this adorable bundle with delicately arched eyebrows, AKA a  Ferruginous Pygmy Owl.

Ferruginous: from Latin: ferrgin-, iron rust, iron-rust color.

Pygmy: it's damn small--with a body about the size of a man's balled fist.

Seeing this owl and capturing its face was particularly satisfying as I'd briefly seen its relative, the Northern Pygmy Owl, in Arizona last fall. It was similarly perched above me, about 20' up, in an anonymous, indistinct little brown ball which flew away before I could photograph it well. So being able to look into the face of a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl makes me feel the circle is somewhat closed now.

Green-winged bombers

Who wouldn't want to be dive-bombed by orange-fronted parrots in the Mexican jungle?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Extreme Cuteness in the Hood

Golf balls with wings--that's what I call bushtits. They are round-bodied, petite birds with an unfortunate name (almost an erotic oxymoron, no?) and the most endearing manner. Flitting around neighborhoods en masse, gleaning tiny insects from trees and shrubs, they are remarkably unfazed by humans and are often happy to go about their business within a few feet of people.

This one, shot yesterday during a spontaneous evening walk, landed in my friend Paul's front yard on East 20th Street and wins bonus Cuteness Points for being fluffy and disheveled from a recent bath or collision with some very wet shrubbery.

An very occasional visitor to the hood is a yellow-rumped warbler. Probably a spring migrant, passing through, which  are more often seen in the Arboretum and the Fill. The spring weather has been so winter-ish, that it's hard to believe that brightly colored warblers and tanagers are passing through the city, spangling our tress and flowers with tropical oranges, reds and yellows.

That said, this house finch (right) is very much a residential bird in the hood through the year. His breast en-reddens (new word!) for the ladies in spring.  Male house finches can exhibit an interesting range of color variation--from red to yellow to gold--which is determined primarily by diet.  More and more research shows that in general, female birds are attracted to vividness of color more than size in male birds. Hmmmm.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Flickers Flicking

In Spanish, woodpeckers are known as carpinteros--carpenters. Of course, we talk of woodpeckers "hammering" or "drilling" on a tree, but they are also hearty makers of sawdust, as illustrated here. After being upside down (below) in its cavity for a few minutes excavating a deeper and deeper cavity for its nest, this flicker turns right side up with a beakful of debris which it then flings to its left. Without fail, both male and female at this Lake Union nest perfom their nestbuilding exactly this way, hour after hour--always throwing dust to the left.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Woodpecker Wonderland

Biking along the Burke-Gilman Trail on Sunday was like zooming through a tunnel of Northern Flicker Love Songs. There was an unending necklace of wicka-wicka-wicka mating calls reverberating in the trees.

As I slowed down my bike to get my camera out, I was literally eye to eye with a Pileated Woodpecker (at left) in a tree.  These stout birds are remarkably skittish for the size, but this one was insanely indifferent to me and my camera. At one point, I was probably five feet away from her as she pounded a tree for insects. Her thread-like tongue is visible in this shot, emerging from the tip of her beak like a serpent's hiss.

Of course, I'm no ornithologist, but my guess is that during the mating and nesting season birds are so zealously finding nesting material and food to fuel their parenthood that they become somewhat oblivious to what would normally be a threat (a sweaty, dorky bike helmet-wearing human with a long camera lens).

This male Northern Flicker (at right) was excitedly excavating a nesting hole alongside Lake Union.  Occasionally he would stop his pounding and make a mating call, which went unaswered.
A bit further away on the lake, I discovered a mated pair taking turns excavating their nest. About every 20 minutes one approached the nest, vocalizing to announce his or her incoming arrival to its mate who was working away in the hole. The vocalization helped me too--so that I could ready my lens to capture shots like this one below.